【明報專訊】I recently watched a movie called Spotlight for the second time. It is about a tight knit team of investigative reporters at The Boston Globe who uncover a wide-ranging child sex abuse scandal involving the Boston Catholic clergy. The film itself is very good, and it rivals another powerful, well-made film about reporting, and one of my favorites of all-time: The Insider starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, with Michael Mann at the helm.
I mention Spotlight not so much because I want to discuss the merits of the film, but because it made me think about the way public institutions work and sometimes don't work in a democracy.
The child sex abuse scandal the Spotlight team helped uncover in the movie was sparked by Marty Baron, who was then managing editor of The Boston Globe. Marty learned about a lawyer who built a reputation representing the many minors in Boston who were abused by Catholic priests, and asked a reporter to follow up on this.
In Boston, the Catholic church wields great power. And a lawyer who brings a case against anyone who is part of the church bears many risks, the least of which is whether he or she will win the case. Yet here was one lawyer doing just that. And because of this lawyer's persistence and courage someone else eventually learned of what he was doing and wanted to know more.
The rest of the movie chronicles the Spotlight reporters as they work, night and day, not just to break the story but to make sure it is air-tight. No reporter wants to write and no editor wants to publish a story that will blow up in their faces. But when that story is a takedown of a perennial pillar of civic society, the expectation is that the subject of the story will do everything in its power to cast doubt on the veracity of the sources who provided information for the story and perhaps the reporters who wrote it as well.
To get the story right then the Spotlight reporters did what reporters are trained to do from their days in journalism school. They knocked on doors to speak with past abuse victims and their families (more often than not with little success), scoured the library for clergy directories of past years, went to court to sue for access to secret documents, spent time to earn the trust of reluctant sources, and compiled the occasional spreadsheet or two.
But the reporters and the institution of which they were a part were not without their faults. In the movie, the editor in charge of the Spotlight team discovers that he once had information about past clergy abuse cases that could have led to an earlier, breaking story but never followed up on it. Also, the institutional, understandable but also unhealthy and potentially destructive drive to get the 'scoop' on a story meant that information was sometimes buried or kept under wraps to prevent competing newspapers from getting a foot in the 'breaking news' door.
As an institution as respected and revered as The Boston Globe had its faults, so too did others whose jurisdictions, reputations and economic interests sometimes intersected with that of the Catholic church. Lawyers clammed up at the mention of the church. Judges were reluctant to rule against the church. Police officers and prosecuting attorneys looked the other way if the subject of an arrest happened to be affiliated with the church. A school might minimise or conveniently 'forget' the past transgressions of clergy who were once on its staff.
One of the last scenes in Spotlight is the familiar yet always powerful sight of newspapers being churned out by the thousands, bundled up, thrown into a convoy of trucks, and spirited into the dead of night throughout Boston and beyond. The story had been reported, written, edited, re-edited, and published. And it was time for the court of public opinion to cast its verdict, which it did.
What led up to this moment is what leads up to anything that produces systemic, healthy change. Work, study, argument, conflict, discussion, more work, and the courage to venture into the unknown. It is in performing this arduous exercise that institutions become stronger, more resilient and better able to adapt to change. It takes time, it's messy, and it can make certain people look bad, especially those in power. But it works. It works because it promotes freedom of thought and enquiry and because it is largely self-regulating and free from state interference. But most of all, it works because we all know the alternative would be far worse.
■by Albert Wan
Albert is the co‑founder and proprietor of Bleak House Books, an English language bookstore in
San Po Kong.